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High-tech cargo airship being built in California

TUSTIN, Calif. — A futuristic airship took its first tentative steps toward flight this month, floating up to 40 feet in the air inside one of the hulking blimp hangars in Tustin.

Many more tests are planned before the Aeroscraft – an ungainly zeppelin that mimics a submarine – can leave the hangar for its maiden flight, perhaps as soon as March.

But the initial trials show that Aeroscraft's unique buoyancy system is functioning.

"We were able to prove that this technology works," said Sadia Ashraf, spokeswoman for the ship's maker, Worldwide Aeros Corp. of Montebello.

Worldwide Aeros is building the airship in a 17-story-tall, World War II-era blimp hangar at the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. The craft is a prototype for a fleet of airships that someday may ferry cargo around the globe more cheaply than cargo jets.

The craft's buoyancy system uses helium to lift the ship into the air, then uses air as ballast to land the way a submarine uses water to dive.

The buoyancy system also makes it possible for the ship to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, so the Aeroscraft can go where planes and other airships can't go, such as battlefields and disaster zones.

Worldwide Aeros crews completed construction of the airship in December, then launched a series of tests to make sure that various on-board systems work and operate in conjunction with each other.

The crew completed its "first float" maneuvers three weeks ago. Earlier, the vehicle completed its first movement and ground-handling test to demonstrate the ship's maneuverability.

Engineers and technicians also are putting in 16-hour days testing the ship's 365 horsepower engines, automatic flight control systems, electronics and fuel systems.

Crews also demonstrated the ability of four oblong landing pads – essentially the ship's feet – to hover above the ground and to anchor the craft. The pads use blowers to create lift when hovering or suction to anchor the ship to the ground.

Tests are about 85 percent complete, said Varoujan Sarkissian, head of the company's electrical department.

The Aeroscraft project is funded in part by $35 million in Pentagon and NASA contracts. The project is part of a wider effort to develop the next generation of airships for military and private use.

The airship being built in Tustin is 254 feet long and 97 feet wide. Unlike the traditional blimp, which gets its shape from the gas that fills it, the Aeroscraft has a skeleton made from strong, but ultralight, aluminum and carbon fiber materials.

It has three propellers – one on each side and one aft – to help stabilize the craft and power it forward up to 140 mph.

The finished model will have a hard, Fiberglas exterior and will be twice as long as the prototype. Aeroscraft will have the capacity to carry 66 tons of cargo – roughly three times that of C-130 cargo planes and almost as much as the top payload of a C-17, the military's largest freighter.

But at this point, the Aeroscraft appears pieced-together, with cables snaking along its patched, fabric exterior, and machinery still protruding from the hull.

The goal is to fly the airship by spring.

"Each subsystem has demonstrations, tests and evaluations," Sarkissian said. "Then, the major challenge for these engineers is to have all these subsystems come together."

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